What would a 40% strategy for Labour look like?

Position:Roundtable

Marcus Roberts' Fabian pamphlet Labour's Next Majority: The 40 Per Cent Strategy (Roberts, 2013) offers an ambitious assessment of Labour's opportunity to build a governing coalition from an increasingly fragmented and apathetic electorate. Here, Renewal gathers reflections from Lewis Baston, Anthony Painter, Emma Burnell and Jeremy Cliffe on Roberts' work and on the possible roads to a Labour victory in 2015. We also print a response from Roberts replying to their comments.

Labour's next majority: relating strategy to outcome

Lewis Baston, Senior Research Fellow at Democratic Audit

In autumn 2012 I wrote a paper for Progress called Marginal Difference (Baston, 2012), in which, somewhat to my surprise, I found that in many seats Labour's defeat in 2010 owed little to direct switching from Labour to the Conservatives since 1997 but a lot to the crumbling of Labour's vote to the Lib Dems, other parties and abstention. Merely recovering Lib Dems lost since 1997, other things being equal, would be enough to make forming a non-Labour government impossible. I argued that to scrape into power, all Labour needs are the left-wing Lib Dems whom Andrew Harrop has labelled 'Ed's converts'. To win a comfortable parliamentary majority, Labour will have to knock the Conservative vote down in the more challenging marginal seats, while to win a landslide would require recruiting a large number of people who have not voted in the last few elections.

In Labour's Next Majority Marcus Roberts fills in some of the detail of what an 'all of the above' Labour electoral strategy designed to achieve a working majority would look like. Even in the age of coalition, the alignments of Westminster encourage one to think in two-party terms and not really take on board the full multi-dimensional complexity of the current environment:

* There are small and dwindling numbers of voters who have a gut loyalty to a party.

* Parties' core supporters are decreasingly able to be simplified into their location within the class system, both because of 'dealignment' of parties and class and the increasingly complex reality of class in British society.

* Voters have, and exercise, a wider choice of party than they did before. Minority parties not only attract votes but also exercise a gravitational pull on their larger ideological neighbours, as UKIP does to the Conservatives.

* Turnout is low and variable; party strategy has to account for mobilisation and counter-mobilisation as well as choice; persuading people that voting itself is worthwhile is needed before you ask them to vote for your party.

* The media (including social media) context is bafflingly fast moving and complex compared to the days when giving a few editors knighthoods and intimidating the BBC was enough to get good coverage (although those techniques have not completely fallen out of fashion).

* There seem to be increasingly strong regional and national differences in voting behaviour.

* Perversely, although local party organisation is weaker than ever before, the effect of local campaigning seems if anything to be getting stronger.

In his clearly argued paper, Marcus Roberts has a go at drawing up a modern electoral strategy for Labour. Because of the need to make an argument, he addresses the electorate in discrete chunks, although it is important not to let this become too rigid or else it becomes another version of the failed 1980s 'rainbow coalition' approach. Policy demands need to be reconcilable, and there needs to be some glue to keep the coalition stuck together.

The most questionable part of the analysis probably concerns the existing Labour vote. I wonder if Roberts is being a bit too sanguine about Miliband's Labour keeping the Labour voters of 2010 in 2015, particularly those perspicacious electors who voted Labour on the basis that Brown and Darling were safe pairs of hands in difficult economic times while the inexperienced Cameron and Osborne would make matters worse. While mid-term polling suggests that these people are anti-Tory, their safety-first instincts could well be activated by 2015 if the Tories manage to erase the memory of three years of failure with two years of modest economic growth. In 1979 and 1992 incumbent parties were propped up by 'safety first' voters who deserted in droves in the next election. While there were fewer of them in 2010 than either of those elections, Labour cannot take them for granted, and probably needs to scare them about the consequences of an outright Tory majority. While the vast bulk of them remain on board now (86 per cent or so in most YouGov polls), campaigning will be needed to firm up some of the other 14 per cent, and it should be noted that in 1979 the Conservatives only retained 87 per cent of their October 1974 voters. To get 27.5 per cent of the vote (or 17 per cent of the electorate) from this source seems optimistic, particularly given that 'generational churn' is accounted for under a different heading.

The assumptions Roberts makes about the 2010 Lib Dem vote seem reasonable. Roberts thinks in terms of Labour taking 6.5 per cent of the (2015) total vote from this source, i.e. about 28 per cent of (2010) Lib Dems (and not much more than a quarter if turnout drops). YouGov's trackers tend to find the flow from Lib Dem to Labour is stronger than required in the strategy (35 per cent or so). A little slippage from this at election time is to be expected, because some of them will end up voting tactically in seats contested between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, but this will not harm Labour's position in its target marginals. As I noted in Marginal Difference, there is a (rather specific) group of marginal seats that the Conservatives gained in 2010 despite their vote being lower than it was in 1997, because Labour had shed support to the Lib Dems (Baston, 2012). Recovering these alone would be enough to make forming a non-Labour government impossible.

Roberts' target for direct conversions from the Conservatives is appropriately modest. If the Conservatives are starting from 37 per cent rather than 42 per cent, one can expect fewer gains from that source. Even in 1997, the recent election with the largest element of direct conversion, the effect was of the order of 1.2 million voters, net - about 1.4 million going from 1992 Conservative to 1997 Labour and about 0.2 million going the other way (Mortimer and Worcester, 1999). The Conservatives made a net gain of around 0.7 million from direct conversion in 1979 (Crewe, 1981). The target of 1 per cent of 2015 voters (given the assumptions Roberts makes about retaining 2010's voters, let us regard this as net rather than gross) translates into around 0.3 million as the target for 2015. Looking at the figures for direct transfer between the two parties over recent (at the time of writing) YouGov tracker polls, the numbers of direct converts bounce around a bit, as one would expect with sub-samples; at their worst for Labour there is a net transfer to the Tories, at their best a substantial transfer to Labour. In mid-October 2013 the range seemed to be between a net loss of about 170,000 electors to a net gain of 400,000. The task of cementing gains of the sort Roberts proposes, particularly given the candidate-centred approach he suggests, seems realistic, provided that not many people flow in the opposite direction.

Slightly confusingly, Roberts bundles up the physical change in the electorate ('generational churn') with retaining 2010 Labour voters. It might have been clearer to discuss this effect under the same heading as 'new and non-voters' instead, or even better to separate out previous non-voters entirely. Every election sees a cohort of older voters depart for the great polling station in the sky, and some new voters qualify by means of age or immigration. Broadly, the departing electors are Conservative and low-swing and the incoming are Labour and Lib Dem but more volatile (oddly, in 2013 they seem to be more committed to two-party politics than the middle-aged). The retirement age population of England is currently around 91 per cent white British, while the proportion among the first time voters of 2015 is around 78 per cent. Given the strength of support that BME electors have generally given Labour, the replacement of a cohort of older white voters with one of younger electors (who if they turn out will support Labour) is a plus. Labour's vote is therefore on a very gently ascending escalator.

The problem is that so few young people seem inclined to turn out at election time, and that the situation seems to have deteriorated sharply during this parliament. Only 12 per cent say they are certain to vote, down from 30 per cent two years ago (Hansard Society, 2013). Persuading young people, and those who did not vote in 2010, to support Labour is a stiff challenge. Somehow, Labour needs to overcome the current culture of futility and cynicism about politics, against a hostile media environment. Many abstainers have sets of policy preferences that are not met in the current party system, such as wanting a more socially responsible capitalism combined with a harsh line on benefits. If one can get their attention, one then needs to steer the political agenda onto territory where they agree with and trust you rather than the other side, and hopefully convince them that voting for you will accomplish some beneficial change.

Some of the Labour voters who abstained in 2010 will return, certainly, but there will also be people moving in the other direction and a high proportion of abstainers are probably unreachable. Locating and talking to the persuadable ones is a formidable task, particularly given the lack of resources available, although the party seems to have grasped that the old techniques will...

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